It has been nearly a year since that memorable night in Kansas City when Ohio State Basketball Coach Fred Taylor lay miserable and distraught in the bathtub of his suite at the Hotel Muehlebach as if trying to soak away disaster.
Taylor had just seen his fine basketball team, the defending national champion and winner of 32 straight games, lose its title in an overtime to Cincinnati. The defeat had been doubly telling, coming as it did at the hands of a rival Ohio school with which relations are sportingly strained at best and quietly bitter at worst. Fred Taylor does a lot of thinking in the bathtub, and what he was primarily thinking that night, once the shock had worn off, was that it would be so very nice to have another chance at Cincinnati in the finals of a national championship. But it was still awesomely coincidental this week, as the NCAA tournament opened with regional games that will lead to the finals at Louisville, that once again Ohio State has an excellent chance to reach the finals, once again it will be favored, and once again the most likely opponent is the team that plunged Fred Taylor into a tubful of hot water, the University of Cincinnati.
If these teams should reach the finals—and, indeed, Cincinnati is not even sure of getting into the tournament at all yet, for it must beat a stubborn Bradley team in a conference playoff—they will both be stronger than they were a year ago. Until last Saturday's upset by Wisconsin, Ohio State was the only undefeated major team in the country. It had won 22 straight games without being severely tested. Never had its winning margin been below eight points. Only once had it been behind at half time. Its success had become so routine that fans around Columbus were almost bored by game results.
In Jerry Lucas, the wonder man of college basketball, the Buckeyes have the country's best shot. He is sinking 65% of his field-goal attempts, a figure no other player even approaches. He is the second leading rebounder in the country, and Ohio State is the national leader in team rebounding. The shooting average of the whole team is a withering 50%, and one reason for this is the rebounding. "When those fellows shoot they are relaxed," said UCLA Coach John Wooden last week. "You'd be relaxed, too, if you knew Lucas was there to throw the rebound into the basket if you happen to miss."
Lucas is having his best year, and so are the other two returning starters, John Havlicek and Mel Nowell. Havlicek is a bounding 6-foot-5 forward who regularly guards the opposition's best shooter and consistently harasses that poor unfortunate into inept submission. Nowell, a guard, continues to be a streaky scorer, as he was last year, but his bad nights are no longer quite so bad and his good ones are even better. The big change in the Ohio State team, however, is the development of a strong bench. OSU's little-known and much overshadowed sophomores played significant roles in games the Buckeyes might well have lost. There are five of them on the squad, all between 6 feet 4 and 6 feet 8, and they are the second best group of sophomores the school has ever had. ( Lucas' class was the best.) One of them, sharp-elbowed Gary Bradds, is a capable substitute for Lucas, something the team needed badly last year. He has, incidentally, made 35 of the 48 shots he has attempted. "They are a lot more than mop-up crew," says Taylor of his new reserve strength.
In spite of its traditionally fast and high-scoring offense, defense and depth are the strengths of this team. If it is to be beaten in the NCAA, it will lose on a night when its offense fails to move and cut with the verve it normally displays. This happens occasionally, sometimes for two or three games in a row. "Ginning around," Fred Taylor calls it with dismay.
Ohio State had best limit its ginning around in the NCAA or it won't make the finals, for it is seeded in the eastern half of the NCAA draw (see chart on page 25) where the overall level of competition looks toughest. It should have no trouble with the winner of the Western Kentucky- Detroit game, which will most likely be Western. Detroit has won only three road games this season. In the quarter-finals, however, the Buckeyes may well meet Kentucky, a team that would present a tougher problem.
Rupp, Nash and trouble
Runner-up in the SEC to Mississippi State, whose policy of not competing against Negroes forced it to pass up the tournament, Kentucky is an unexpectedly good team. It has three stars: Cotton Nash, a sophomore who plays any position and handles the ball like an NBA guard; Larry Pursiful, a major threat from outside if he recovers from a wrenched shoulder; and Adolph Rupp, the canny coach who almost seems to make points himself when his players can't. Kentucky has a 20-2 record, even though Nash, who is under 6 feet 6, is the team's biggest man. Bowling Green, a likely victor over a beautifully disciplined but too-small Butler team, is expected to use its height to give Kentucky a tussle in the second round before succumbing to its own defensive weaknesses. That would set up the Kentucky-OSU match, a glamorous battle of traditional powers, though the realities don't give Kentucky much hope. "Ohic State has a one-two-three punch," says Adolph Rupp. "We are lucky to have a one-two punch." Still, Rupp is just the man to take advantage of the slightest failure in the OSU offense. If there is no such failure. State should sweep the backboards and go on into the semifinals at Louisville.
There it will meet the winner of the eastern regionals. Wake Forest has one of the poorest records of the seven eastern teams (18-8) but has built up tremendous momentum while winning 11 of its last 12. All-America Len Chappell, a 6-foot-8 strongman with an incongruously delicate shooting touch, is being used primarily at forward, while 6-foot-11 Bob Woollard plays center. Guard Billy Packer, who must score if Wake Forest is to succeed, is averaging 13 points per game by making 46% of his shots. His shooting has improved significantly in recent games. One of Wake's weaknesses is lack of speed, and midcourt pressure bothers this team. Both Villanova and West Virginia like to apply such pressure, but Villanova has tailed off badly in recent weeks and injuries are still hurting West Virginia's frantic, free-lance attack. Both NYU and St. Joseph's (if the latter wins its conference) could cause trouble, too, but Wake Forest is the best bet in the East.